When you mention the name Ray Henry it is usually followed with someone mentioning The Ballroom polka. The Ballroom polka has almost become the middle name of the Ray Henry Orchestra. On November 8, 1975, Ray Henry and his Orchestra appeared at the New York State Fairgrounds in Syracuse, NY. Even before the first note of the first song was played everyone in the hall knew it was going to be The Ballroom polka. Of course, with Ray Henry, it is difficult not to play a song people wouldn't find familiar.
Art and Eleanor Kott, who have a great polka radio show in Syracuse, were responsible for this fantastic polka happening.They are long-time friends and active in the polka field for an even longer time. When I received a letter from them, with tickets to the dance, I was determined not to let anything stop us from attending. In all my years involved in polkas, I had never had the opportunity to see this great Polka Fall of Famer, Ray Henry. He could easily be called a "Charter member" among polka stars.
The evening started out on a bad note, however. When we arrived at the hall, Ray was busy trying to fix a frozen reed in his accordion. As it drew closer to 9 p.m. and everyone was starting to become more concerned, in walked Al Piatkowski with an accordion. Ray Henry's smile returned and stayed for the entire evening.
During the first break I had a chance to talk with Ray and the Orchestra. As we walked across the hall, Ray was continuously greeted by friends and fans from past dances and events. After spending a few minutes talking with Ray, you soon realize the smile everyone sees on stage come from the heart. He stated they are playing four night a week in his home State of Connecticut. This, plus road jobs, keeps the Ray Henry group very busy. They play what the people want to hear, good music. Ray's 32 plus years in music is proof that he's doing things they way his fans like them done. Onstage, along with Ray, is Eddie Skinger a 19 year veteran on bass who also handles vocals for just as many years. The trumpet work is provided by Danny Mangiafico. Clarinet and sax are well taken care of by Pete Kokoszyna and Jim Nistico, respectively. The beat for this super group is kept by drummer Jas Przasnyski, formerly of the Connecticut Twins Orchestra. Put this group of talented musicians together and you have polka music as it should be performed.
The Ray Henry Orchestra has slowed down a bit but as Ray said, "I've slowed down myself." They are now somewhere between Chicago style and Eastern Style. Whatever style they play, it is great for dancing.
After spending an evening with Ray Henry you feel as if he's been your friend for many years before that. He is a great musician, a great polka promoter, and a just a great person.
Another good part of the evening was seeing Art and Eleanor Kott again. As mentioned earlier, they are old friends from way back. It really is more than that, however. About 3 1/2 years ago, Art sent me tickets for a dance he was promoting featuring The New Brass. It was at that dance that I met Adele, and a year later we were married. I always tell Art I owe him for this one. Art and Eleanor are great people and even better friends.
We also had the pleasure of seeing Andy and Rose Misura and their daughter, Mary. Andy is a Concertina "nut" like myself and he and his family can be seen at any polka dance with several hours of their hometown of South Otselic.
A special thanks to Bill and Dottie Derkach who were our chaufeurs for the night.
The next day, Sunday, November 9, Dick Pillar and the band were at the Fountain's Pavilion in Johnson City, NY. This dance, sponsored by Bill Flynn and Flynn Productions drew over 250 polka fans. The Pillar band, which consists of 7 guys and Dick's wife, Adele on vocals, really pushes out a driving, solid beat. Dick and I had a long talk about polkas, locally and nationally. I also had spent time with Lenny Maynard, the accordion player with the band. He reported he was a reader of POLKA WORLD and my column, which made my day. It certainly is good to hear that people do read these columns.
Since I've mentioned Lenny on accordion, I've better not forget the rest of the band. They include, Jackie Libera on sax and clarinet, Dave Czohara on trumpet, Ed Wolinski on trumpet, Bob Tokarz on drums, Gary Wolinski on bass and of course Dick Pillar on vocals, trumpet and trombone.
Dick was surprised to see all the children doing the polka at the dance. Most of them were taught by the Polka Paraders' Club of Binghamton who have been giving polka lessons for the past several months. It is great to keep polkas alive for the future.
The band also played the Anniversary waltz for Bill and Paulette Flynn who were celebrating their 4th wedding anniversary.
If everyone goes according to schedule, this column should appear in the Christmas issue. Whether you have a Polish Christmas, a Slovak Christmas, a German Christmas, an American Christmas, we hope at least you will have a "polka Christmas." Christmas oberek around the tree with St. Nick and spread joy and happiness where ever you go. Adele and I wish all the readers of the Polka World the best during the Holiday Season. Wesolych Swiat!
Copyright 2006 Polish American Journal
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